As a person with an almost unhealthy craving for novelty, I do not often revisit media, even media that I genuinely enjoy. Often I will begin a re-read of a book, a re-watch of a movie or TV show, or a re-play of a video game of which I have fond memories, only to become disinterested and bored once the initial wave of nostalgia has passed. The only books which I have re-read completely tend to be either:
a) assignments for school, which I have had to dissect and mine for quotes and citations
b) books which I have read for research, to better absorb the information
c) philosophy books (or philosophically dense novels) which are difficult to understand on the first reading
d) books which I appreciate as much for their craft as for their storytelling
Books belonging to group (d) may not even be my favorite stories, but are books which I, for whatever reason, enjoy examining not only as narratives–which can get boring–but as works of prose-as-art, or storytelling-as-art. For example, one of my favorite books–perhaps my absolute favorite book–is A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin. This short fantasy novel is probably responsible for my desire to become a writer, because it so thoroughly captured my imagination in two distinct ways. First, when I first read it as a boy–around ten or eleven years old, I think–it absolutely dominated my imagination, to the point where for a substantial period of time the fantasy maps which I drew as part of my imaginative play were all archipelagos. Later on, I reread the story as a slightly more critically minded teenager and recognized that the book was brilliant not only for its excellent world, characters, setting, and plot, but for its simple, elegant, yet still rich use of language. I still revisit A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels semi-regularly, to remind myself of a world I love and of prose I wish I were skilled enough to emulate.
This brings us to my recent reading. A few weeks ago I finished Gene Wolfe’s five-volume “Solar Cycle” or “The Book of the New Sun” and its sequel “The Urth of the New Sun,” (The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, The Urth of the New Sun) which is, without a doubt, one of the best Sci-Fi/Fantasy series I have ever read, and also without a doubt the single most inscrutable. Even The Malazan Book of the Fallen, widely praised and criticized for its density, was more translucent on a first reading. Which is not to say that the “Solar Cycle” isn’t comprehensible–the story isn’t really that difficult to follow on a basic level, it’s the less-than-obvious divergences between the narrative account and the “actual” events of the novel, the rich thematic layers, and the motivations and mechanisms behind the series’ more magical elements which need to be revisited to be properly understood. And this is largely because of how the story is constructed. At the beginning of the “Solar Cycle” we have only a hint of the eventual scope of the novel, and it is very easy to miss important hints, clues, and narrative elements on the first go. But once the scope of the plot, the powers at play, and the themes being explored are grasped after a first reading, the second reading provides an entirely different perspective and much richer understanding of the series. And I say this while being only partway through the first book on my reread. Thus on a reread the “Solar Cycle” reveals not only new facets of its narrative, but new depths and intricacies of craft and artistic mastery.
I’m not sure what I as a writer and an artist can take away from the “Solar Cycle” in this regard. Certainly a part of me aspires to the level of skill which Gene Wolfe displays in these books. But for now, when I have written only short stories and one-and-three-quarters novels, I feel like a child just learning how to swim contemplating a few laps of the English Channel. In the end I guess this post is a recommendation for the “Solar Cycle,” a bit of bragging about how good a book has to be to get me to reread it, and a reminder that prose and narrative craft can be as important to writing fiction as plot, character, and setting.